Researching Local Climate for Site Assessment

I have been on an internet bender lately, going way overboard in climate research for my site assessment. It’s been fun, and brain sucking. The associated post Cordova, Alaska: Location and Climate is the outcome of my research. That post has all the photos and graphs, this post is a kind of behind the scenes how-to.

First I want to make sure you all know that you don’t need to spend a million hours on research like I have done. I am an obsessive personality, on the biggest obsessive kick I’ve had in years. I am also a mama of two small children, and have been busy with some intense mothering for the last 5 years. I’m having a blast diving deeply into something completely unrelated and unlike mothering, something super intellectual to use my atrophying brain; and I’m neglecting all kinds of household duties in the meantime.

Throughout this winter, I am hoping to generate a permacultural design for my home site as detailed as this 53 page Bellevue Permaculture Design, fully 20 pages of which are site and context description. Please understand that I do not expect this out of anyone else participating in the discussion group. I am sharing mine mainly just as a way to make my ‘outcome’ feel more real to myself, not as an example of what everyone else should do. Make your site design however detailed you want it to be, use whatever time and energy you want to use.

I like that Mollison values this kind of extremely detailed research, but also and equally values ‘experiential observation.’ I’ve known people who are exclusively intuitive, never analyze anything at all, and they are every bit as effective as me with all my lists and charts and ‘efficient’ strategizing. (Maybe more. Sometimes research and analysis are just an excuse to sit on my ass, drink coffee and pretend I’m being useful.) I suspect that the most effective people, like Mollison and Fukuoka, are a dynamic combination of intuitive and analytical. Myself, I am all and only the latter. So, we all have to take what we have and go with it, right?

Everyone participating in our group should write up a description of their location and climate for the site survey, but they don’t need to be nearly so thorough. If you’d rather not do the data research, you can just describe your climate based on your own knowledge of it. That is absolutely fine. Write a few paragraphs, give us an idea of what it’s like– estimate temperature averages and describe seasonal variation. Tell us when your rainy season is and when folks generally expect frost.

However, if you have the time, energy, desire and appropriate personality type, detailed research about your climate and location could potentially be very useful to your design project, as well as your overall ‘permaculture education.’

If you are so inclined, here are a number of factors to research for your area. Look for averages or ‘means.’

-high and low temperatures by month
-first and last frost dates
-your zone
-precipitation by month
-period of complete snow cover
-typical wind patterns by season
-solar input (hours, position and angle) by month

Research Resources:

Your local Cooperative Extension Service might have many of the answers, I would check there first. Some Extension Services are very good, others (like Alaska’s) are just state sponsored advertising for chemical companies.

The USDA has a new interactive Plant Hardiness Map with more refined zones. Although it is important to know your zone, they are not as all-telling as they seem. For example, snow cover is critical in the question of whether a plant will survive cold temperatures. Other essential factors are wind and duration of cold spell.

After looking around for general climate statistics for quite awhile online, I hit the jackpot with the Western Regional Climate Center. They maintain a mind-blowing database of statistics. The site is a bit awkward to navigate– the link above doesn’t take you to the home page, but directly to the regional links page (which is hard to find from the home page). Once there, you will find the page divided into three different ways to access data. 1. The first thing on the page is a set of links which will take you to a somewhat limited list of cities, with a very comprehensive single page description of the general climate, including typical cloud cover and wind direction/speed. 2. The second thing on the page is an interactive map– zoom in to your area, very close up, and then hit ‘show station.’ They have 2800 weather stations on there, including four for my tiny little town, so make sure you choose the closest or most applicable station. (In my area, the station out by the airport, 15 miles away, gets half as much rain, and much less tempering coastal influence, than here in town.) 3. The third thing is a straightforward list. You click on your state, then find your nearest station from the list. This one appears to have fewer stations than the (newer) interactive map.

I was feeling sorry for anyone outside of the western states, when I discovered that NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center coordinates Regional Centers for all parts of the US! (Now I just feel sorry for overseas folks. Please leave a comment if you find a similar resource for your area.) Although each center operates it’s own website differently, the data available looks to be exactly the same.

Once you get to the right Regional Center, and find the page for your local weather station records, it will look like this:

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This main page is a good condensed description, but if you want to really suck your brain out on the computer, start going through that sidebar! There is so much information there you could spend days sifting through it. I particularly recommend scrolling down to Period of Record for the main Temperature and Precipitation pages, as well as the Spring and Fall Freeze Probability pages. I expect the Growing Degree Days would be very useful if I knew what that meant….

Because I found all the separate lists and tables hard to wrap my brain around, and because I’m a freak, I compiled all the loose data into a single ‘localized climate graph.’ You can see it in the Cordova Climate post. Although it did take a while, I highly recommend it for anyone with the time/inclination. It’s basically a visual representation of the growing season and climate patterns and definitely led to some ‘aha’ moments.

After I’d finished geeking out on temperature and precipitation, I wanted to get my teeth into some solar data. I thought it would be really hard to find solar information on my area, but I was wrong. Because of solar energy technology, the internet is full of some bonafide geeks and their associated ‘solar calculators.’ There were several, but this solar program from the University of Oregon (typical) was hands down the best I found. All you need to know is your zip code! You enter that (or lat/long if you are outside the US) and make any adjustments you want, then their calculator spits out an awesome curve graph, visually charting the solar path (elevation and position) for your specific location at each hour of the day, for every month of the year!

There are two distinct types of charts, one using “Cartesian” coordinates, one using “polar” coordinates. Definitely do one of each, they are both amazing visual representations. The “polar” style would lay right on top of your site map if you could print it on overlay paper.

Note: If you use your zip code to calculate, make sure to click on that option. Simply entering your zip does not automatically choose that option, as I found out when I realized I had accidentally just made myself a chart for their default location– Eugene, Oregon. Ha, ha.

One more note to any computer illiterates, because this took me hours to figure out (I’m not kidding). A good satellite image, or two or three at varying distances, will be a great asset to your survey. I wanted to pin my location on Google maps and then save the image to put into a post, but I couldn’t figure out how, partially because My Man is out of town with the computer and I am doing all this on an iPad. I finally found out what maybe everyone else and their sister already knows. On an iPad, to take a “screenshot” which will save to your photo album, press the Home button (round at bottom) and then at the same time, press the on/off button (on top.) This is so useful! Does anyone know how to take a screenshot on a computer? Knowing the term at least, you should be able to do a search for the answer…

Any other research or computer tips?

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Cordova, Alaska: Location and Climate

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Cordova is a remote Alaskan fishing town, with a year round population 2,400, accessible only by ferry or plane. We are in the bullseye center of 4 very different systems– to the north we are backed by an impenetrable fortress of mountains (with peaks ranging from 3,000-10,000 feet) and a nearly contiguous glacial cover; to the east is the Copper River Delta, fanning out in a braided expanse of silty sloughs and marshes 35 miles wide– the largest intact wetlands in the United States; to the south lies the big bad Gulf of Alaska, wide open to the Pacific ocean; and to the east, the protected marine waters and old-growth rainforest of Prince William Sound, the northern end of the Cascadia bioregion.

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Because of this juxtaposition, we get some very intense weather. It doesn’t get near as cold and dark as the interior and northern Alaska, but neither does it ever get very warm; and sun is typically displaced by clouds and heavy rain as the surrounding mountains catch the many Pacific storms whirling by.

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Cordova gets an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year. That’s more than thirteen feet of water. We also get some epic storms as you can see above, with winds frequently reaching “hurricane force” (74 mph). This doesn’t leave much time or space for what anyone, anywhere would consider good gardening weather.

Although we typically have at least 130 frost-free days and often considerably more because of our coastal influence, average peak summer temperatures are between 50 and 65 degrees– and even that ‘warm weather’ rarely lasts for more than two months. Many years see weeks on end of 40-50 degrees during those supposed “peak summer months.” On top of that, the late ‘summer’ harvest months are a deluge. August receives an average of 13 inches of rain, September an average of 22 inches of rain (and temperatures of 49 degrees) and October sees 21 inches. For a little perspective, Seattle, the self-named ‘Rainy City’ gets 38 inches per year.

To create a visual representation of our typical weather systems, and make sense out of the pages of data, I assembled this chart from NOAA’s Western Regional Climate Center, weather records for Cordova’s North Station.

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You can see the key to the main graph at the top there, but in case you can’t read the small writing, the vertical lines are, respectively:
yellow = spring equinox
pink = typical end of continuous snow cover (my own estimation)
dark green = reliable last 28 degree frost
light green = reliable last 32 degree frost
orange = solstice
yellow = fall equinox
light green = possible first 32 degree frost
dark green = possible first 28 degree frost
pink = typical beginning of lasting snow cover

Here on the coast, we are in USDA zone 7b, with minimum winter temperatures of 0 to -5. But, I feel like this is an inaccurately high zone number because of our completely inconsistent snow cover and rapidly changing winter weather. We can have a big snow (several feet) followed by warm weather, melting all the snow into a sodden ground, followed by a temperature dive to 5 degrees and a world coated with ice. It is a very hard place for roots. And fruit trees– if they survive the frozen ground, iced and snow laden branches, and multiple false springs– are unlikely to get enough hours of sun and heat to ripen fruit.

We also get some impressive winds here, as I mentioned. It can blow very hard, gusting to 80 miles/hour or more. The storms can last for days and occur with great frequency, particularly in the fall when one right after another can produce weeks of literally constant rain. Storms typically hit from the southeast, and cold winter winds blow down from the interior north. But because of the geography of the town and our site, we tend to experience both winds from the east as they blow through the gap in the mountains (that body of water on the right is a lake, to the left a protected inlet.)

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Here is another view of the town, seen from across the inlet, looking east.

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As you can see, the tight quarters and surrounding mountains block much of the solar possibilities, particularly in winter when the angle of the sun is exceptionally low. Here is a ‘polar coordinates’ chart from the University of Oregon’s solar calculator describing the path of the sun throughout the year. NOTE: I have flipped the chart (which is created with south at the top) to correspond with the above satellite image of the town. I realize that in permacultural design we are supposed to put the ‘sunward side’ at the top, but I haven’t quite gotten my head and maps around this yet.

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Here is another view (Cartesian coordinates) of the same information:

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As you can see, here at our high latitude (61 degrees N) the sun takes a very shallow path through the sky. Even at summer solstice when we have a potential 18 hours of sunlight, the solar “azimuth” or highest point is only 54 degrees (90 degrees being straight up, or zenith). At winter solstice we get a mere 6 hours of potential sunlight, and the sun doesn’t travel higher than 12 degrees!

When reviewing the solar data for this area, it must be kept in mind how few clear days we get. I wasn’t able to find any data on the percentage of clear days for our town, but averaging between the data for two nearby towns (Valdez and Yakutat) I estimate our annual average to be 45 days clear, 55 days partly cloudy and 265 days cloudy. Clear weather is most frequent in late winter, followed by spring and early summer (my own observation). Fall and early winter are typically very cloudy, as well as rainy and windy.

In short, I am trying to garden where the world’s wettest, coldest and darkest climates intersect. It’s brilliant.

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Creating Your Site Survey: Part 2

There was a question on the first site survey post about was whether folks were using graph paper or a computer program, and I realized I should explain a bit more about the actual mapping process.

I’m sure there are awesome landscape design programs out there and anyone who knows how is welcome to use them, in fact you could write a post here about which programs and how to. I seem to remember from the introductions that someone is a professional landscape designer… But I myself prefer plain old graph paper. I’m just an incurably old fashioned girl. Unless you are going to be using a computer program a lot, they seem not worth the time it takes to figure out how the #$&! they work, if you know what I mean.

So today I will explain the basics of mapping your garden/yard on real live paper.

First of all, if you have never done this before, you will want graph paper. It’s easy to find, kids often need it for school, so most stores carry it. The common kind has 1/4 inch squares. If you ever find a pad of smaller square graph paper, I highly recommend it. I got a pad once that has darker lines at one inch intervals, with 10 lighter lines between– I think it’s called a section pad. It’s awesome. I also found, in someone’s trash in New Orleans (I’m a hopeless scavenger) a pad of architectural drafting paper, it’s got the same small squares in groups of ten, but the pad is huge! 17 by 22 inches, exactly four times the size of a regular sheet of graph paper. So much more detail is possible. Certainly the 1/4 inch stuff works just fine, especially for this initial site survey. But if you can get hold of some drafting paper for your final site design, you should.

[Actually, I’ve just had a thought– the pad I got has many more sheets than I will ever use. If you leave a comment here asking, I will email you for your address and send you a few sheets. Seriously, it will only cost the price of a stamp. No big deal.]

But, back to the task at hand.

When you go out to take your measurements, you can just roughly sketch things in so that you have a frame of reference for your measurements, not worrying about scale. You don’t even need graph paper for that first sketch. Then, after you’ve measured everything out, copy it onto graph paper to scale. I usually count the squares across and down, and then decide how many squares to use/foot. For example, an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of 1/4 in graph paper will be apx 34 squares by 44. For many urban lots, this works out nicely to make each square represent two feet.

If you have a large rural lot or acreage you are obviously not going to be measuring it all out with a tape measure. I believe that city offices have some kind of very basic survey map of your property/area, if you didn’t get one with the sale. Overlaying this onto a USGS topographical contour map (you can download and print free USGS maps) would be awesome, though I’m not sure how exactly you would do that… Anyone know about this? Anyway, you can look into all that over the next few months. For now, just measure your “zones 1 and 2,” the areas nearest the house and do the best you can with guessing and estimation for the rest.

One thing I forgot to stress in the last post is only to draw in permanent elements: mainly structures, but also trees and garden beds you are absolutely not open to eliminating/moving. You want your initial survey to leave as much possibility as possible. Do note the “sunward side,” south for most of us in this group– do we have any southern hemisphere participants?

So, now you should have something that looks like this:

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Leave off titles and description right now. You want just the bare bones for your “master copy.” Run off several copies (keeping the master separate and inviolable)– you will come back to this map many times over the next few months and will want multiple copies to sketch out existing patterns and future ideas.

For this initial site survey, you will need two copies. On one add the titles and existing non-permanent elements, so that it describes your lot exactly as it is. Don’t forget to put in undesirable realities. See “bucket hell” below. Note that I accidentally changed orientation on this copy. Don’t do that.

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On the other copy, draw in the immalleable external forces, such as wind direction, sun footprint, foot traffic patterns (you can change that a little with your design, but surprisingly not much), water and drainage as described in the last post, so that you have something like this:

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One thing I forgot to do on this one is describe the adjoining influential elements on each side, which is very important in our tight urban settings. For example, along the front of the yard is a dead end street, with a house directly across. On the north side there is a neighbors yard, with a few spruce and hemlocks between. Behind our lot is a small tract of neglected urban forest, keeping our backyard in near total shade but also deliciously private and lovely. And on the south side, there is a continuation of that forest, narrowing as it moves towards the front of the yard, as I did somewhat describe on the map itself, which also severely inhibits our sun access.

That’s it for the map. Don’t forget, it’s equally important to also describe your greater area and climate to us. Do a little research for this. What sort of ecosystem dominates the landscape? Give us some actual flora and fauna lists. What sort of weather patterns dominate each season? What is your rainfall? Frost-free days? What is your zone, and any other factors you think affect that? Details! We want ’em!

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Creating a Site Survey

Okay, I am stepping up to my role here as whip-cracker. You can call me Madam Calamity from now on.

I would like for all interested participants to start by creating a site survey. This is a survey— purely mapping and observation, with a little healthy dose of ‘visioning’ thrown in– so will not require any prior permaculture knowledge. In other words, do this while you are waiting for your manual to arrive.

I want site surveys done by November 20th, so nobody is trying to finish it up while the Thanksgiving turkey is in the oven and early Christmas mania is taking hold.
I know some of you do not own property. From what I know about permaculture, I believe it is imperative to work with a real piece of land for your design project, rather than a fantasized perfect homestead. So if you don’t have your own conveniently outside your doorstep, try to find the nearest piece of land to your home that you will be able to snoop around with a tape measure and spend some time on. The yard of your rental, or a nearby park.

I’ve taken the liberty of photographing the relevant pages out of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. His book is my top recommendation for those just starting out, and I hate to steal anything from it. But given the circumstances, I think Toby would understand.

He breaks the survey process into Observation and Visioning. I would further break it down into these steps:

1. Map your property. For real, with a tape measure. No cheating. This why I’m giving you nearly a month. Put all existing structures and trees on there, and make an attempt to represent rough topography (slopes).

2. Map the patterns of external factors such as your “sunprint” (where it falls, morning noon and night. Of course this is seasonal, but just go with what it’s doing right now), wind patterns and water drainage. You don’t need to be exact, but the more specific the better. Also detail your climate and general weather patterns. We all need to know where you are and what it’s like.

3. Pure observation. Toby explains below.

4. Resource Assessment. What you’ve got to work with– time, materials, money, etc. Don’t skimp on this very practical consideration.

5. Visioning. This sounds hokey, but it is important. This is the survey of YOU and what you want/need from your land. I read Second Nature recently (Michael Pollan’s first book, really great rumination on gardening. Very not permaculture.) and was stuck with his emphasis on finding the “genius of the place” which I understood to mean, the very special-est thing. The jewel. It sparked my realization that our side yard is a porch, the whole of it, even though it has no actual porch whatsoever. The “genius” of our yard is it’s large gap view of the spectacular mountains across the valley, and I realized with a thud that my previous designs, which had tried to use that gap for it’s meager sun access, were misguided. The garden beds need to frame and support that amazing view, and shelter the area we use for lounging, rather than block it. I think Second nature freed me from my overemphasis on function and allowed me to place a significant importance on enjoyment of our yard.

I suggest printing out the page (below) that has the ‘what to observe checklist.’ It will help keep you focused.

If you want to see what a certified permaculture design looks like, which always starts with a site survey and base map, check out this one from Alderleaf Farm, it’s 31 pages, but I suggest you just look at the first section on site description, history and climate. Here’s an even more technical one from Belleview, France. It is 51 pages long, fully 15 of which are site and “context” description.

I’m not expecting us to meet this caliber, but I should think we would all generate at least a full page or two of description, as well as the map itself.

Okay. And… Go!

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Welcome!

I hope you are up for some hard-core independent study! Go order your book! Check with your local library first, to see if they can inter-library loan it for you. This will give you a kind of preview. If you like it, and feel sure you will continue with this project, you can purchase a copy. I’d hate to be responsible for a bunch of folks spending a bunch of money that they regret later….

I ordered mine through the library last week and got it today! And I live in bum-f*ck Alaska! So, it’s worth asking.

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